An engaged humanities: Another essay on how to defend what we do

This post is a response to Peter Burian’s excellent piece for Inside Higher Ed late last month titled Defending the humanities. It reminded me of a theme that has run through several conversations about digital scholarship and tenure and promotion. My colleague and friend Moya Bailey, in her post reflecting on her first THATCamp CHNM, ponders over the question “if we love doing the work does it matter if it doesn’t count?” As she notes, your answer to that question may vary depending on where you are in your career. While it is true that faith and idealism has served the humanities well, we need to look at our world with clear eyes and engage with it rather than pretend like we can set ourselves apart from it.


I graduated from college in 1998 with a degree in American Literature and the economy was relatively awesome. Like most of my classmates, I was operating under the assumption that a college degree in something you are passionate about was pretty much all you really needed. I admit that the details were a little fuzzy back then but I had faith that it would work out. There seemed to be ample scholarship money for grad school and new job opportunities in the booming tech sector. I wasn’t in a hurry so I spent a year teaching English in Poland just because it sounded fun.

Had I started college sometime in the last four (maybe eight) years, I don’t know if I would have had the stomach to keep the faith. I knew I wasn’t going to get rich with my English degree but I didn’t really think I would be homeless either. That fear would come later when, having extended my stay in grad school as long as possible, I scheduled my graduation from a doctoral program in American Studies for May of 2010.

The bad economy means fewer jobs; not just traditional tenure track jobs – which have been scarce for a long time – but jobs in general. The jobs that do exist seem pretty specific and employers can afford to be picky. At the same time, college is getting more expensive which is resulting in astonishing levels of student loan debt. I know that it is crass to talk about vulgar things like debt, unemployment and wages in the context of a noble humanities education but these are real issues that are impacting our students (both undergrads and grads) as well as our friends and colleagues. Those of us who are working in the humanities have to acknowledge that our careers are not only the result of our incorruptible souls and strong characters; they are also a privilege and, due to shifting social and economic conditions, an increasingly rare one at that.

So, while I agree with all the points Burian makes in his essay, I would argue that in order to really defend the humanities we need to identify concrete ways to demonstrate the continued relevance of the skills and methods learned in humanities courses. Furthermore, we need to take stock of the world as it currently exists around us and identify how the humanities can creatively and critically engage with it. I love that it is the humanities’ instinct to slow down, be careful and see the beauty and value in places where no one else is looking. At the same time, I worry about our propensity to demonize the practical and fetishize the esoteric to the point that we alienate others (for more thoughtful notes on this, see Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s post on unpopularity and literary criticism). Those of us who have already devoted ourselves to the humanities understand why it matters in a way that feels instinctual but to make the argument we are going to have to think creatively and try to understand the world from the perspective of today’s students. Failure to engage them is not an option for obvious reasons.

Here are three points to get something started. This list is not exhaustive and there is nothing terribly new on it. Many people have more experience than I in actually implementing these ideas and maybe some of them will read this and add comments below. I’m corralling these points here in response to this particular conversation.

1. Incorporate technology into course work and assignments.

This is a no-brainer. Students’ lives happen online so why would they expect their education to be different. Furthermore, different tools may help you reach students with different learning styles and the more students (and graduates) out there who see the value of a humanities education, the better for all of us.

Multimodal work also encourages media literacy. We are quick to point out how a humanities education teaches students essential writing and reading comprehension skills. Emerging (and already emerged) technology has provided us with new ways to communicate and new ways to learn and they each require their own kinds of literacy. We should embrace the opportunity to teach them rather than pretend like they don’t count. See Sharon Leon’s recent post on tech skills for historians which could be applicable to most humanities scholars. Also, everyone needs to keep an eye on what the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab is doing with the Praxis Program.

2. Seek out projects that embrace rather than set themselves apart from the contemporary world.

Burian, a professor of Classical Studies, uses an example from Homer’s Iliad to illustrate the timelessness and power of great literature. This is undeniable. Powerful art has the ability to reflect back at us our world and our lives in revealing and fulfilling ways. Avoid creating the impression that such work is an artifact of a long lost era by incorporating contemporary work into lessons and drawing connections across epochs. May I suggest finding a place for William Gibson’s so-called Blue Ant Trilogy?

You can also find ways to engage contemporary culture directly and turn those critical skills on the world you and your students live in everyday. Have you heard about Mills Kelly, the history professor at George Mason? He teaches a class called Lying About the Past? His students study historical hoaxes and then propagate their own on the internet as a way to learn how to be more savvy researchers. There are also scholars who study the underlying technical structure of the technology that has become such an intimate part of our world. Calling what they do critical code studies, these scholars look for the values inherent in the code that makes our machines work.

3. Engage the public

If you haven’t done so already, you should go read Siva Vaihyanthan’s response to the return of the University of Virginia’s president Teresa Sullivan published in Slate. Titled, Why our Universities Are Supposed to be Terribly Inefficient, Vaihyanthan makes a personal and passionate defense of the Ivory Tower noting how the efficient and esoteric academic work is a necessary part of innovation and one which the private, for-profit sector does not always have patience for.

The article cites medical advances (Case Western’s Polio vaccine) and technological breakthroughs (Stanford’s Google) as examples of slow, experimental academic work that eventually paid off in important ways. The contributions of the humanities may not be as clear-cut and dramatic but I would point to the decades of scholarship and advocacy done in fields like gender and sexuality studies which have played a part in advances like The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and the end of the don’t ask don’t tell in the military.

The humanities should be proud of the roles they have played in these profound cultural conversations. We should also look for ways to engage more often and more directly. History provides a good model for this given the long tradition of public history in the form of museum work. In fact, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has produced several tools which can be used by humanities scholars to make their work more publicly accessible. Omeka provides an easy way for scholars to build websites based on images and Press Forward is experimenting with new ways of “collecting, screening, and drawing attention to” scholarly work done online so that it is both more accessible and more timely.